Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
200 billion trillion
Second time I've used this photo in a month. Different angle, though. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
A little over a dozen years ago, I did a tandem freefall jump out of an airplane at 10,000 feet. I had the idea that I might like it enough to make skydiving a hobby, but life got in the way.
At the time, however, it was more than just an adventure; it was a symbolic act. I'd gone through a divorce, my life was upended, and there was just something poetic to me about the idea.
I remember a lot of the experience vividly, but one of the big memories is how all the anxiety I carried with me—about starting over, about my place in the world, about whether I'd parked in a no-parking zone, about whether the parachute and the experienced guy I was attached to would function correctly—completely melted away during the experience.
It was just so vivid: You made the decision. You're falling through the sky. You might die in two minutes, but if so, there is nothing you can do to prevent it. You may as well enjoy the experience!
I had something else planned for today. But I realized I missed something with yesterday's newsletter about the Overview Effect and I thought that there's no time like the present to share it.
It has to do with that skydiving experience, and with two numbers:
200 billion trillion.
Let's talk about the second number first. It's the national debt. (No, I'm kidding; it's not the national debt. But if I don't make that joke here, I think someone else will make it in the comments.)
Instead, it's one of the accepted estimates for the total number of stars in the universe.
It is not humanly possible to wrap your head around this number. One way to think of it is that if we divided the stars among the 8 billion of us on Planet Earth for some reason, we would each lay claim to 25 quadrillion stars.
That's this many: 25,000,000,000,000,000. Per person.
I first became quasi-obsessed with this estimate in 2013, when my wife and I (a lot of things happened during the 2+ years after my skydiving adventure!) went on our honeymoon.
We were in Hawaii, and we trekked to the top of Mauna Kea, a 13,803-foot mountain on the Big Island.
Besides being one of the few places in Hawaii where a winter hat and coat come in handy, Mauna Kea is also one of the best places on the planet to gaze up at stars. I read up on space and astronomy in advance of this trip, and that incomprehensibly big number has been both comforting and distressing ever since.
More math: If there were 100 billion stars orbited by planets with human life in the universe, and we somehow set aside minor difficulties like the vastness of space and how absurdly long it would take to travel, by my math we would have a 0.000005% chance of finding one of them.
Feel free to correct my calculation; I was an English major and (fun fact) I have never balanced a checkbook. But, even if I'm off by a few billion, attempting to comprehend this number led me really to think about the idea of alternate universes or a multiverse outside of science fiction.
I've come around to the idea that there probably are. And, I wonder whether there's any way to think about that concept, and the total number of stars, and really reflect on it and meditate, and somehow approach the idea of the Overview Effect that astronauts and writers have described (and which, again, was our topic yesterday).
I think the concept is a net-positive. And, I think it's important, because the other number I mentioned above—628—is the best estimate I can find of the total number of people who have traveled to space.
(There's a bit of a debate over the definition of "space," but it's pretty close.)
While the number is going up quickly—and while I've probably exceeded my quota for both “em-dashes” and “weird percentage calculations” in today's newsletter already—I can't imagine too many of our readers have had or will have the chance to go to space during our lifetimes—especially far enough away to see the Earth as a pale blue dot in the blackness.
Maybe it will be more common for our kids? But until then, maybe you just have to try to make yourself believe in whatever the Overview Effect actually inspires, until you do believe it.
With full awareness that I'm like the shoemaker whose kids are barefoot when I advise other people not to worry, maybe the math, and really thinking of the multitude of mind-blowing experiences we can have down here on Planet Earth, can make it a little more possible.
We're all falling through the sky. We may as well try to help each other enjoy it.
7 other things worth knowing today
President Joe Biden informed Congress on Monday that he will end the twin national emergencies for addressing COVID-19 on May 11, as most of the world has returned closer to normalcy nearly three years after they were first declared. (AP)
Former President Donald Trump is suing my old boss, journalist Bob Woodward, for releasing recordings of interviews that he gave to the journalist in 2019 and 2020, claiming he never agreed to those tapes being shared with the public. Trump is seeking just under $50 million in damages, a figure his lawyers calculated assuming Woodward would sell two million copies of the audiobook at a download price of $24.99. (Bloomberg)
If Marie Kondo has “kind of given up” on tidying at home, can someone tell me how someone like me is supposed to be neat and organized? Kondo: “My home is messy, but the way I am spending my time is the right way for me at this time at this stage of my life." (The Guardian)
Wild: The Social Security administration denies disability benefits based on a list with jobs from 1977. Example: a disabled electrician who has suffered two strokes, and has "halting speech, an enlarged heart and violent tremors." SSA denied because the 45-year-old list says he could work as a "nut sorter, a dowel inspector or an egg processor—jobs that virtually no longer exist in the United States." (WashPost)
Tens of thousands of Russian convicts—including some murderers and rapists— were paroled on condition that they go fight for the Russian army in Ukraine. Now, thousands have served their term at war and are being released in Russia: “These are psychologically broken people who are returning with a sense of righteousness, a belief that they have killed to defend the Motherland. These can be very dangerous people.” (NYT)
NASA will send a probe in October to intercept and explore an asteroid with minerals potentially worth 70,000 times more than the entire global economy. The spacecraft is on track to reach its strange metallic destination by 2029. (Space.com)
Sleep researchers are paying people $1,000 to eat cheese before bed. I mean, it's a mattress company trying to figure out if there's truth to an apparent old myth that eating cheese before you sleep causes nightmares, so I doubt this is going to wind up published in the Lancet. But, if you like cheese and sleep and money, how often would you see an opportunity like this? (Insider)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: some other guy who also jumped out of the airplane with us that day. Also, I write so much and I have so many drafts lying around, that I forgot I’d mentioned this same skydiving trip a month ago. I guess it meant a lot to me. See you in the comments.